Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Patti Smith

Poet, musician, author, artist, trailblazer: Patti Smith is all these things but labels alone cannot do justice to the ambition and breath of her creative work. M Train, her latest book, is a memoir but it is a different beast than Smith’s much-loved Just Kids (2010), which focused on her early career and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train Smith is struggling to write, wading through the ghosts of times past, telling killer anecdotes and drinking a lot of coffee. For anyone interested in creativity, in writing or in just hanging out with one of the most interesting artists at work today, M Train is a book to savour.

You can listen to my review of it for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena by clicking here.

Reviewing Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena

Reviewing Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena

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Last night I had the pleasure of reviewing Harper Lee’s hotly-anticipated ‘Go Set a Watchman’ with Sean Rocks on RTÉ radio’s nightly arts show Arena. Like generations of Irish school kids, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ holds a special place in my heart and I’ll admit that I was concerned the publication of ‘Watchman’ would tarnish it somehow. While ‘Mockingbird’ is still the superior story, ‘Watchman’ is more nuanced, more complex, and, I would say, a fascinating accompaniment to Lee’s masterpiece. Twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I’m still thinking about ‘Watchman’, not something you experience very often. You can listen back to my review here.

On Academia & Climbing A Tidal Wave: The Sibéal Conference 2014

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams, Stoner 

Over a reader’s lifetime there are a handful of books that linger in the mind forever. Often these titles are consumed in the blaze of youth, when life’s possibilities – actual and intellectual – spill forth like a psychedelic tapestry. For many of us, as we age, life becomes less about the highest highs and more about the eternal questions of what life is for and what constitutes living well. To this end, John Williams’ reclaimed classic Stoner blew me away in a manner I associate with the usual literary suspects of youth (The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, etc. both of which I still love, without apology).

William Stoner is possibly the greatest literary hero many people have never heard of and perhaps that’s the point. Williams’ exquisite reflection on life and living is a gentle antidote to the 21st century’s obsession with a specific type of bombastic, materialistic version of success. In Stoner we see the quiet majesty of a life well-lived. It is not perfect, it is not constructed with technicolour and jump-cuts but it is imbued with purpose and passion.

Stoner is also in many ways a love letter to academia, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and those who create and share it. Williams’ insight about the art of learning came to mind this weekend as I presented my own work and delightedly binged on gender and feminist research at the Sibéal Network’s annual conference for early career and postgraduate researchers. To say that it was a pleasure to listen and absorb the wealth of thought and research that comprised the programme is an understatement, not to mention the excellent, equally invigorating chats over wine and coffee. The theme ‘Gender and Metamorphosis’ was brilliantly chosen as so much gender research is concerned with transformations of society and the self. The papers I enjoyed are too numerous to list here but among the issues tackled were performing masculinities, intersectionality and international human rights law and the gendered construction of perpetrators and victims in sexual assault cases (the full programme is available here).

As Williams observed, our lives are short and there is so much to know and sometimes, for me at least, it feels like trying to climb a tidal wave. As a scholar it’s so good, so important to be reminded that you’re not alone and also to see the fantastic work being done to address and give voice to the myriad of inequalities sheltering under the umbrella of gender and feminist research.

To read more about the great work Sibéal do, to get involved and see their slick new website click here. And if you’re thinking of getting the fiction fan in your life a book that will warm their hearts while simultaneously breaking them (in a good way, I promise, it’s what all the best books do) then I recommend Stoner a thousand times.

Photo Credit: FuturePresent via photopin cc

Read: On Radclyffe Hall, Judith Butler & ‘The Well of Loneliness’

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“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990.  Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.

By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.

Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’

Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.

Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’

Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.

Culture Night 2014

culture night 2014

‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and minds of its people’ – Mahatma Gandhi

Everyone could do with a little bit more culture in their lives. Alas, between the hectic practicalities of living and the sense that many people (unfortunately) have that a) creativity is something they relinquished in childhood and b) cultural spaces and practices are often ‘elitist’ or ‘out there’ somehow, our culture becomes something we underrate or overlook. This is a real shame, given that Irish culture -from the language to the literature to the digital arts – is as vibrant and as vital as it has ever been. If you’ve been meaning to recharge your cultural batteries, Culture Night on Friday September 19th is the perfect opportunity. Since 2006, this fantastic annual event throws open the doors to Ireland’s cultural treasure chest, inviting citizens to experience and enjoy the best culture this country has to offer. There’s so much to see and do across the length and breath of the country – including your own locality – that it makes http://www.culturenight.ie a must-see site. If you’re a literature fan and Galway-based, I’ll be taking part in an Over the Edge reading at Kenny’s Bookshop and Gallery as part of the festivities. More details of that  here and be sure to sample the delights nearest you.

Over the Edge Reading, Galway, August 28th

August 2014 Over The Edge Open Reading

 

Roll up, roll up, ye lovers of literature!  On August 28th, I’ll be one of the featured readers at Galway’s Over The Edge open reading in the city library, which I’m thrilled about. Over The Edge is a huge support to writers of all kinds and I’m very grateful to Susan and Kevin for the opportunity. On the night, I’ll be reading with Majella Kelly and Jane Williams. As always, there’ll be an open mic afterwards if you’re brave enough (and you are) plus this year’s Over The Edge new writer competition long list will be revealed. If you entered, you may be on it, so good luck. For more details about the night and the great work Over The Edge do, click here.

Listen: The Late, Great Molly Keane

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July 20th marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of Molly Keane, one of the sharpest, funniest novelists Ireland ever produced. Born into an Anglo-Irish family, Keane became a chronicler of the declining fortunes of her class, first under the pseudonym ‘M.J. Farrell’ , then in later life under her own name, with the publication of the wildly successful Good Behaviour. A critical and commercial smash, Good Behaviour  lost out on the 1981 Booker Prize, which went to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children. Keane was undoubtedly a ‘big house’ writer, using the metaphor of crumbling mansions as a symbol of her class’s demise, but she also waded into the complexities of the relationships – sexual and otherwise – of the families who lived in these lavish homes. Her humour is acerbic and savagely funny. She wields it as a device of entertainment and social commentary to exceptional effect. It was a pleasure to chat about Molly’s life and times on Arena to celebrate her birthday. You can listen back here and learn more about Molly’s life and writing here.

RTÉ Radio One: Francis MacManus Award

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Ask most writers why they write and they’ll tell you they have little choice in the matter. It is an urge, a compulsion, to filter life through words, finding new ways to express things that often feel beyond language. If, along the way, you pick up a notice or two for your literary endeavors, all to the good. I always need reminding my writing may not be the worst in the world and to that end, I’m delighted to have been shortlisted for the 2014 Francis MacManus Award. The full short list and dates of broadcast (oh yes, broadcast) are listed on RTÉ Radio One’s website. My thanks to this year’s judges Christine Dwyer Hickey, Julie Parsons and Eoin Purcell, and big congrats to my fellow nominees. Well feckin’ done.

Crannóg 34 Launch

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Creative writing is a curious thing. Locking yourself away, squinting at a page or a screen, scribbling down sentences that are ninety percent awful, seven percent passable and three percent vaguely satisfying, is hardly the foundation for a healthy social life or any type of functional life, full stop. It’s hard and lonely and if people think you’re a little bit mad because you feel you simply have to write, then hell’s bells, they are probably correct. 

Having written non-fiction for the bulk of my life and having it come relatively easily to me did not prepare me for the realities of fiction writing. Creating opinions as opposed to creating entire worlds are two very different crafts. Last week, for the first time ever, I read something I had written to a room of almost complete strangers ( a group of friends came along from my MA course to surprise me, which they did. They also made me very happy, bless ’em.) Now, I’ve been on stage, radio, TV etc. and reading things to an audience is generally not a problem for me. That is, of course, because the ‘thing’ is at a quite a nice remove. A script, a running order, notes – all written by someone else you see or by me in a professional capacity, all concerning topics I can talk about but still remain, on a personal level, a safe distance from.

There is no hiding place when it comes to reading your fiction in public. If people hate it, you’ll see it in their faces, you’ll feel it in the air. No wonder so many writers eschew reading their work for audiences altogether. Even if the story is entirely fictional, it is still you, on a page, laid bare for people to draw all kinds of conclusions from, not safely tucked away at home where you can’t see them but right there, in front of your eyes, as you quiver on stage.

But I did it and it wasn’t bad. I survived, without gagging, crying or making a hasty beeline for the loo mid-performance. The generosity of the other writers was what really blew me away though. As a novice, I will never, ever forget it. People don’t have to be nice or kind or encouraging, especially those far more established than you, but when they are, what a gift it is. The piece I read is called Two Eyes, Watching from the latest edition of Galway’s brilliant (if I do say so myself) Crannóg magazine, issue 34, whose launch we were celebrating. The cover is by local artist Harriet Leander. As you can see from above, it is just gorgeous. Thanks to team Crannóg for having me and to all the authors and poets who lit up the Crane Bar last Friday night. You can pick up Crannóg here or from (the best bookshop in Ireland, folks!) the always outstanding Charlie Byrnes in Galway City.

P.S. Here’s a nice collection via Flavorwire.com of brilliant author’s reading their work in public. Hope it inspires you.  Truman Capote is probably my favourite out of the lot. To Tiffany’s!

On Being Present

Blackberry Photograph

‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ‘

Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’.

On a recent holiday, my iPhone died an abrupt death. While other phones chirped and squeaked into life as we waited at the baggage carousel, mine refused to turn on. When it finally did  flicker to life, I had few precious minutes to check my emails before it faded to unresponsive black. Staring at the now piece-of-junk in my hands, my thoughts turned from ‘what’s wrong with my phone!’ to ‘what’s wrong with me?’ There I was, on a sun-soaked balcony in a little Spanish town crying out to be explored, the beauty of its Old Town laid out before me like feast but instead of looking out or up, I was tethered to a fancy plastic box.

My predicament isn’t unique. It’s the subject of countless editorials, articles, probably even a Ted Talk.  Anybody given to the slightest bit of introspection has probably found themselves wondering about our fascination with and addiction to technology. Because it is an addiction, this compulsion to be plugged in at all times, to converse or ‘connect’ with people we wouldn’t recognize in the street,  the creeping suspicion that our lives don’t matter unless we are sharing them at all times in 140 characters or less.

After about twenty-four hours, I forgot about my phone and everything that goes with it. Time slowed down. My brain rewired itself. I recorded things the old fashioned way, with words and photos I would actually get developed. Sometimes, the only recording I did was in my mind. It was enough.

The passing of Seamus Heaney was a gut-punch. His poetry illuminated the sublime in the so-called ‘everyday’. By being present to notice the little things, Heaney created work that brought and will forever bring joy and hope to so many. As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully put it, ‘enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things.’

 There is magic in the simple act of paying attention.

In the mad dash to digitize our lives as we live them, are we actually enjoying them? Are we noticing what really matters? Or are we locking ourselves into a cycle of perpetual distraction, half-living, always vaguely anxious, too busy recording our memories to live them fully?

We’re not going to stop having this discussion anytime soon but if you’d like some food for thought on the matter, We Live In Public is a fascinating documentary on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was convinced the way forward for the Internet was mass sharing and recording of our lives. Good call, Josh. Zan McQuade’s essay ‘Has the job of remembering been outsourced to the Internet?’ raises interesting questions about collective memory and how we store our personal histories.

One last thing…

When you write (with the phone and Internet off, naturally) you indulge in some pretty antisocial habits: daydreaming, weird timekeeping, drinking alarming amounts of tea or wine, depending on the day or the deadline. So, it is really nice to get a little recognition in the real world for your endeavors. On that note, I’m delighted to be on a shortlist of ten writers for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition 2013 and also, I’m delighted to be on the long list for the 2013 Over The Edge New Writer Award. Scribble, scribble, scribble. When the writing force is strong within you, that’s all a gal can do.